No-one could possibly accuse entrepreneurial wunderkind Elon Musk of being less than ambitious: between revolutionizing the electric car industry (Tesla), expanding the solar-electric generation industry (SolarCity), and devising new rapid mass-transit methods (Hyperloop), it’s a wonder he has time for more out-of-this world endeavors, namely his SpaceX spaceship manufacturing and transport company. And now Musk says that SpaceX’s ambitious BFR spacecraft could be used to carry passengers not only to the Moon and Mars, but also on shorter trips around the globe, including trans-Atlantic flights that could be undertaken in less than half an hour.
SpaceX has recently seen success in developing a reusable rocket for use as a multi-use launch vehicle, with the ultimate intent of building an economically-sustainable rocketship called the BFR (officially standing for "Big Falcon Rocket", although SpaceX’s internal nickname is "Big Fu@#ing Rocket"). Announcing his revised vision for the craft at the September 29 annual meeting of the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk described the BFR as a 106-meter (348-foot) tall, multistaged, refuelable and fully reusable spacecraft that can lift 150 tons into orbit, or ferry more passengers than the capacity of an Airbus A380 (up to 850 people). Alternatively, it could carry around 100 astronauts in a more comfortable configuration on the multi-month trip to Mars, part of Musk’s ambition to found a colony on the Red Planet.
But Musk also mused about using the BFR over shorter distances, proposing that SpaceX’s future flagship could send passengers across the Atlantic in 29 minutes, or to the other side of the planet, for instance from New York to Shanghai, in under 40 minutes.
There would be regulatory issues that would need to be overcome, of course, but the BFR would also wouldn’t come with some of the baggage that kept Aérospatiale/BAC’s Concorde supersonic airliner from becoming truly successful: many regions, including the United States, have a ban on overland supersonic flight that limited the Concorde’s operating area, but the BFR would fly primarily above the atmosphere, limiting (and possibly eliminating) the sonic boom the vehicle would produce.
What finally did the Concorde in were design constraints that limited its capacity to a mere 90-120 passengers, preventing it from being profitable in relation to its high operating and maintenance costs — trans-Atlanic tickets for the three-and-a-half-hour flight in 1997 were around $8,000 — a niche market that all but dried up after 9/11. The BFR, on the other hand, could carry eight to nine times more passengers, making the craft far more economically viable, especially for economy-class passengers, than its supersonic predecessor.